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Full text of "The Gay Genius"

EXPERIMENT IN STATE CAPITALISM             85

ancient ideas and political systems, whatever he thought was so must
therefore be so. These Commentaries were so bad that they were soon
forgotten after his death, and no copy has been preserved. But while
he was in power, they were the bible of the scholar candidates at the
examinations; the slightest variation from the interpretation of the
premier was enough to disqualify a paper. Particularly it showed
offence to scholarship to have the compilation of the Commentaries
made in only two years; the work was formally started in March, 1073,
with the help of his young son and a political henchman, and published
in June, 1075. This hurried piece of work was set up as the orthodox
interpretation of Confucianism, and as Wang changed his mind about
the interpretations, new versions were published for the benefit of the
scholar candidates, who knew their lives depended on keeping abreast
of the revisions.

This is not the place to discuss Wang Anshih's scholarship^ a subject
rather painful for Su Tungpo because he was by far the sounder scholar.
But it may be mentioned that Wang Anshih's "etymology" was in-
describably funny, as all amateurish etymology is. Besides the Com-
mentaries on the Three Classics, the great rage among the scholars of
the time was the fashion for discussing etymology started by Wang
Anshih. This "etymology" was really a study of the structure and
origin of the written characters, not by the comparative method, but
by the lively use of one's fancy. Wang believed this to be his most
Original and lasting contribution to learning and continued to work on
it in his old age, completing it in twenty-five volumes. Western scholars
can understand how easy it is to compose twenty-five volumes on
etymology once the scholar lets his imagination go without checking
it by scientific methods—the methods used, for instance, by Han and
Ching dynasty scholars. For "fanciful etymology" can be spun out of
pure fantasy at the rate of a dozen a day. It was easy and it was a great
deal of fun to try to read into the composition of a Chinese character
all sorts of reasons why a particular combination of certain components
should come to be the symbol for a certain meaning. Some fifty items
of Wang Anshih's etymology have survived to this day, chiefly as after-
dinner pleasantries. Many jokes that passed between Su Tungpo and
^Wang Anshih hinged on these "etymologies".

Su Tungpo loved to use the method of reductio ad absurdum. There
is a Chinese word meaning turtledove. It is composed of two elements,
"nine" and "bird". Clearly the element "nine" is phonetic, because both
"nine" and "turtledove" are pronounced chiu. Wang Anshih, however,
ran riot over the phonetics of the elements in his desire to make some-
thing interesting out of their meaning. Su Tungpo one day, in the
course of a chat, asked Wang Anshih: "By the way, why is the word
turtledove written with the elements nine and bird?" Wang was